Women and children second …

10 Jul

I recently wrote about how the government’s recovery strategy for Covid-19 indicated that it had no time for kids.  While pubs and golf courses prepared to open, schools and childcare remained closed to most children, and women were bearing most of the burden of home schooling and baby care.


Since then, Rishi Sunak has delivered his Summer Statement, outlining the state of play in the progressive reopening opening of the economy.  In spite of the widespread recognition that Covid 19 has made gender inequality worse (e.g. here) and that children’s education and wellbeing has been set back during lockdown (e.g. here) the Chancellor’s speech made barely any reference to women or children.  In fact, women were mentioned only to acknowledge that along with young people, and black and minority ethnic groups, they are disproportionately likely to work in hardest-hit sectors such as retail and tourism.  Children got a shout-out as eligible for the ‘EatOuttoHelpOut’ vouchers for restaurants, while the plight of the large fraction of school pupils who are in families using food banks, was not brought up at all.


The children’s sector has found itself low on the government’s priority list since the beginning of the pandemic, and although a group of nearly 150 charities wrote to the government to plead for greater attention the children’s issues,  their voice seems to have gone unheard.  The proposals relating to Universal Credit in Rishi Sunak’s speech, were concerned with increasing resources for coaching to help the unemployed.  The Child Poverty Action Group was one of a number of organisations advocating for uprating of child benefit, and for an end to the 2-child cap, which prevents support for third and subsequent children.  In the current scenario of growing unemployment, and low wages in employment, child benefit will be crucial to many more families, and is currently at a level which makes family life a struggle.  Food banks and voluntary sector bodies do what they can to plug the gaps.  But these proposals, and others in the #ChildrenAttheHeart campaign – which asks for more protection for vulnerable children and more resources for preventive services for children – have been overlooked so far.  This is deeply disappointing for children who have missed out on so much during lockdown.


Meanwhile, the people who have been trying to keep kids’ show on the road are predominantly mothers, many of whom are still juggling working from home with childcare.  Others are furloughed, and at risk of future job losses.  Less than 24 hours after the Chancellor’s statement, John Lewis and Boots, two large high street employers with majority female workforces, announced job cuts.  As administrative workforces begin to move back to offices, it is likely that those working from home – many still unable to access pre-school or after-school care – will often face greater risk of redundancy, than those who can get back into a shared workplace.  There is very likely to be a gender gap in parents’ capacity to make that return, which is why the government’s lack of priority for children’s services means that women find themselves on the sharp end of the economic downturn to come.


It could be that women’s and children’s concerns will rise up the agenda as the Chancellor prepares for Phase 3 of recovery, the re-building phase.  However, there is the risk that by then many more employers will have made cuts or hit the wall, and that the beleaguered childcare sector will be much diminished.  Already women endeavouring to return from maternity leave are finding that they can’t readily secure places in nurseries.  Meanwhile schools’ re-opening remains full of doubts around how learning gaps can be made up, how to respond to possible future local lockdowns, and how to timetable next year’s public exams.   With so much up in the air, families look to the government for reassurance.


And this reassurance might seem more solid, if the measures that were introduced in the Summer Statement were universally well-regarded.  However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is among those critical of some of the Chancellor’s policies.  The IFS warned that the voucher scheme for restaurants, and VAT cut for hospitality, may be poorly timed – social distancing measures mean that businesses cannot open at capacity, and there is still widespread reluctance to go out while infection rates remain high compared to other countries.  Furthermore, the bonus scheme announced to encourage employers to retain staff once the furlough period ends in October, may simply go to jobs that would have been maintained anyway, rather than offering a major incentive against more lay-offs.  These policies may offer ‘too little, too early’ to transform prospects for the most vulnerable employees, a group where women continue to be over-represented. Let’s hope that Phase 3 is not too late to turn the tide in women’s and children’s favour ….






No time for kids …

22 Jun

There’s a saying that ‘to govern is to choose’, and in making choices, governments show us their priorities.  In the current Covid crisis, there has been little choosing going on, when it comes to children and young people.  Repeatedly, the government has failed to make clear choices about schools and childcare. The recent high-profile U-turn over Free School Meals, a change powerfully advocated for by footballer Marcus Rashford, is only the tip of a rather ignominious iceberg.


Education expert, Laura McInerney, summarised the government’s approach to children in education in England as ‘Schoolswang’. ‘Schoolswang’ is modelled on Mitchell and Webb’s quiz spoof, ‘Numberwang’, where contestants pick random numbers to shout out, until one person is declared the winner – the rules are impenetrable.  ‘Schoolswang’ encompasses the Free School Meals fiasco, but also a continual lack of clarity over whether/which children should return to school.  The government has swung between exhorting schools to open, admitting it can’t be done, and intermittently suggesting that teachers may be part of the problem, when all the while teaching staff have been trying to square the ever decreasing circles of attempting to make schools operate within the government’s own Covid guidelines. Last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time reached nadir, when Boris Johnson began to ask the Leader of the Opposition to say what he was doing to solve the problem – while offering no new leadership on the issue.


On Friday, Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, in a much-trailed speech, offered up new money, to help schools provide catch-up sessions over summer, and extra tuition for disadvantaged children.  But still the questions come – will the money reach schools before the schemes are in place? How will the attainment gap be bridged if more funds aren’t funnelled towards schools in the most disadvantaged areas, or with the highest proportion of disadvantaged children? And so on…


It’s not just schools that have been mired in changing guidance.  The early years sector has struggled to get a hearing at all – I have talked about the delayed decisions over keyworker status here, and discussed longstanding underfunding issues of the sector.  Enter the weekend editorial in the Observer, lamenting the lack of priority given to these issues, and the lack of imagination devoted to children’s and young people’s lives overall, by both government and opposition. The newspaper has come up with a manifesto of suggestions for everyone from pre-schoolers, to school leavers and students.


By taking the bull by the horns, the Observer has shown up a lack of political priority given to children in recent politics.  However, there is a welter of third sector and expert activity in this space, sadly under-used at the moment.  The impact of lockdown on children’s mental health and wellbeing looms large.  The Children’s Commissioner has looked at how the Covid crisis has affected children’s right to education.


But unlike the interests of those running horse racing or golf clubs, or the defenders of the ‘Great British pub’, the children’s and family sector appears to be neglected in the government’s recovery strategy. The voices raising the implications of Covid policies for women’s (impending lack of) employment and experience of inequalities at home, have yet to apparently cut through.  Once more it seems that the Prime Minister’s most valued constituency is a man in the street, who needs to get back to his after-work pint and a bit of sport.


Ella Davis recently wrote in the Guardian about how she got a response from Dominic Cummings and Mary Wakefield, on the issues faced by single parents in lockdown.  Her perspective contributed to the recent implementation of ‘social bubbles’ for single-headed families and one other household.  Single parents have suffered greatly through social isolation and insecurity in the jobs market, and it’s right that this should be addressed.  As Ella Davis herself observes, the example of her campaign points up a certain blindness to the issues faced by lone parents, in routine policymaking.


Taking a wider family policy perspective, in a child-centred view, it’s hard to remain in a situation where many children and grandparents cannot see each other, just as it’s difficult to permit some years to attend school without others; if your view is employment-centred it’s obvious that you need to sort out childcare as well as schools opening, if you want parents to return to work; if it’s women-centred (which it rarely is) you need to be monitoring all these decisions through a gender lens, which, in the current circumstances, indicates job losses in many female-dominated employment sectors, and urgent need for childcare everywhere.  While fathers have been found to be doing more in lockdown, it is still women who bear the brunt of childcare and home-schooling, all the evidence suggests.  Flexible working and parental leave policies are both in need of reform.  Irrespective of family type, most households are under some degree of economic and/or social strain after months of lockdown.


It’s a shame that family policy has been so de-proritised in recent years that many proposals are overlooked.  Enormous credit is due to individual campaigners for affecting change; there is still a whole swathe of interlocking issues around parenting and children and family income which now need dedicated attention. These issues are all the more pressing because there is little parliamentary time left this session – parliament rises on 21st July.  Very little time to make schools policy effective; to deliver coherent policies for university students; only a few weeks to show how nurseries can survive to re-open to give toddlers the social stimulation they need, and to free up parents (especially mothers) to work.  In the light of all this, perhaps it’s no surprise that Boris Johnson is revealing his hands-on fathering credentials this morning – like babies everywhere, his family policy is crying out for a change …






Dangerous Liaison?

24 May

It’s been a busy year for blogs about what’s going on in Select Committees. And today it’s the turn of the Committee of Committees that is the House of Commons Liaison Committee.  This body is significant because its membership consists of the Chairs of the other Select Committees in the Commons, and it has the distinction of being the only Committee that can summon the Prime Minister to a session of questioning.  It therefore fulfils an important scrutiny function in calling Prime Ministers and their governments to account – throw in Coronavirus and impending decisions about the transition period for Brexit – and its role as an inquisitor of our leader becomes all the more vital now.


You may remember that I drew attention before to the fact that Number 10 has taken an unconventional route to appointment of the Liaison Committee Chair.  In fact, there has been a bit of a behind-the-scenes row about how this process should be completed.  In recent years, the practice has been for the Liaison Committee’s members to elect the Chair of their Committee from within their own number.  However, Boris Johnson’s regime has taken a different view on how things should proceed.  Rather than business as usual, a preferred candidate has been put forward from outside the Liaison Committee membership, installed via a government motion.  The issue here is not that the Chair comes from within the Conservative party – it is conventional that Liaison is chaired by the governing party, and the distribution of  committee chairmanships between parties is decided based on vote share in the General Election, so the government will usually have a majority of Chairs – it is the way the process has been handled.


Normally, the Liaison Committee is set up and a Chair elected, within weeks of a government being formed.  It is now over five months since Boris Johnson won the General Election, and he has yet to be questioned by the committee, while a Prime Minister usually submits to questioning three times a year.  But Boris Johnson has consistently refused to appear before the committee since he first became Prime minister 10 months ago.  The previous Chair, Sarah Wollaston, was dismayed to have her requests turned down repeatedly last Autumn, following the ill-fated prorogation of parliament.  Avoidance of scrutiny has therefore been a frequent feature in criticism of the current leadership.  By not permitting the Committee to select from within its own ranks, there is suspicion of a government seeking to mark its own homework.


In putting the government motion to place Bernard Jenkin in the Chair before the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to argue that it was an enhancement of democracy.  It was enabling all MPs to have a role in selecting the Chair, rather than leaving it to the ‘clique’ of Liasion Committee members.  But as Brigid Fowler of the Hansard Society points out here, he was not offering up an open election with a plurality of candidates – just an opportunity to approve the choice of candidate.  Harriet Harman put forward an amendment to revert to the usual election system, which was backed by a number of Conservatives – including Jeremy Hunt, Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee – but it was defeated.  Given the size of the current government majority this came as no great surprise.


And what of the chosen candidate? There is no doubt that Bernard Jenkin has valuable experience as a previous Select Committee Chair himself.  He recently chaired the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) which works to examine constitutional issues, and quality and standards in the Civil Service, and ultimately, the Cabinet Office.  He therefore has insight into scrutiny of matters at the heart of government. (As a sidenote, while he was Chair there, I wrote about how he had to apologise for the under-representation of women as witnesses, in an enquiry into national statistics). But of concern in terms of the Liaison Committee role, is that he is well-known as a loyal supporter of Boris Johnson, and he sat on the board of Vote Leave.  As he will head up questioning of the Prime Minister on matters including Brexit, many are unhappy with these associations.


However, Jenkin has asserted that he will act independently and facilitate scrutiny of cross-cutting issues like Coronavirus.  The Prime Minister speedily agreed to his request to appear before the Committee this coming week (albeit for 90 minutes as opposed to the suggested two hours).  Some say that the PM agreed because he believes that Bernard Jenkin is a safe option as scrutineer.  Others counter that Jenkin will be keen to be seen as his own man. In an interview with PoliticsHome he talked about his style as enabling people to ‘put more truth on the table’, and to secure accountability for future action.


By the time the Prime Minister sits down in front of the committee on Wednesday, who knows what the situation regarding Dominic Cummings will be? It’s been pointed out on Twitter that several of the Tory MPs indicating that Cummings should be considering his position, are members of the Liaison Committee. In holding Boris Johnson to account on this and other matters, let’s hope for something more rigorous than an American humourist’s definition of a committee – ‘a group of men [sic] who individually can do nothing, but who as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done’ ….





A period of enforced inactivity ….

13 May

The Prime Minister’s speech to the nation at the weekend included a phrase with stuck out for me: he described lockdown as a period of ‘enforced inactivity’  – but I’m not sure that’s really an accurate description of what has been going on in many households.  For people in families, the labour of the household has if anything increased, as more people are around in the house all day, with all the extra meals and cleaning up that that involves.  Add in home-schooling and working from home, and ‘enforced inactivity’ seems a little fanciful… As I quipped on Twitter ‘if your activity was inside and you weren’t paid for it, it didn’t happen’ …


The veil of ‘enforced inactivity’ makes all the work going on inside households to keep the show on the road invisible.  Of course, this work is predominantly done by women for a multitude of economic and cultural reasons.  There are widespread reports that where mothers and fathers are living together under lockdown, women do the majority of childcare and housework, even where both partners are continuing to work from home.  Often this is because the men are higher-paid jobs, which lack flexibility around online meetings, so that women work around their needs, rather than the other way round. There has also been coverage of the situation in academia, where female researchers are ceasing to submit work to academic journals under pressure of childcare, while men have carried on – sometimes even increasing their submission rates – during lockdown.  As journal publication is key to promotion, this is a worrying trend in a sector which is already far from gender-equal. It’s likely that these patterns are also occurring elsewhere.


For the moment, childcare and schools are closed to most – only the children of keyworkers and children who are vulnerable are currently in their usual settings.  On Monday the government’s latest advice to workers began to unravel, as guidance on public transport use and what defined a ‘Covid-secure’ workplace was not immediately available, though Tuesday saw the publication of raft of documents and clarifications.  Issues around childcare were slower to rise up the agenda, with guidance for childminders to open in a limited way published overnight.  The proposals to re-open schools in June only apply to children in certain years for the moment – and it’s still a couple of weeks until then.


So, how can workers reconcile their childcare obligations with employers who may follow the current advice and ‘encourage’ them back to work? This question was put to the PM, and he respondedif people don’t have access to childcare and they have a child who isn’t back in school… then I think that’s only fair to regard that as an obvious barrier to their ability to go back to work. And I am sure employers will agree with that’.  I’m not sure how much time the Prime Minister has spent thinking about this, if he really believes that all employers are always entirely reasonable about granting flexibility for parents.  The 54,000 women laid off  each year during pregnancy and after returning to work may have something to tell him about this. Why does he think there are so many consultancies working with companies to embed flexible working policies? Why does he think there are more women with qualifications than ever, and yet relatively few at senior levels in most sectors?  A pretty major reason is that not all employers are equally persuaded of – or equally skilled at – taking caring responsibilities into account when designing jobs and retaining staff. If childcare is a problem, it is often the employee’s alone to solve. Men find their requests for flexible working turned down more often than women, and fear career damage if they take time out. The culture remains one where family life and domestic labour largely remain invisible while we’re engaged in paid employment.


As if to stress the inconspicuousness of caring work within families further, the latest guidance – to widespread bewilderment – allows for paid cleaners and nannies to begin to return to those households which employ them, but it remains against the rules for family members outside a household to perform such roles. Granted there is concern that grandparents (made vulnerable to the virus by age) should not be exposed to people they don’t live with – but the priority given to economic rather than social relationships rankles with a lot of people.  And of course a good proportion of working parents rely on at least some informal care in order to go to work (a third of parents use informal childcare according to the ONS) – and so will be having to put themselves at the mercy of their employers, should the ‘encouragement’ to return to work come. If Boris Johnson thinks his lockdown modifications are ‘baby steps’ he should at least recognise that someone has to be there to lend babies support.




Is this remotely working?

9 Apr

As the Coronavirus pandemic forces most of us into our homes for the time being, one of the big challenges has been to establish systems for working from home.  The video conferencing website, Zoom, has seen its value rise to the point where it is now apparently 50% higher than all of the US’s airlines put together.  This figure shows how the virus has transformed our working culture and economy.  With many workforce sectors shut down, and lockdowns extending to cover around one third of the world’s population, are we seeing a lasting revolution in employment trends, or simply a bunch of temporary contingencies, likely to spring back to whatever normal looks like, once this phase of response has run its course?


Covid-19 is forcing everyone (including governments) to think about employment and livelihoods anew.  Clearly an important part of this picture is technology – without the internet and social media it would be less feasible to maintain homeworking and social contact during the crisis.  But this highlights existing inequalities  – older people are less likely to be tech-savvy, and pandemic conditions will likely be better for the elderly who have access to the internet and the skills to use it – often the better-off and better-educated. School children – who it is almost taken for granted will keep up with their schooling remotely – will suffer if they have no personal laptop, no space to study or low data allowances.  All of these eventualities occur more in poor families, than in relatively advantaged ones.  Women will bear the burden of childcare and domestic labour in most households because of their weaker position in the labour market, and persistent cultural norms around earning and caring.  The workers we need most now, are increasingly recognised – even in the pages of the FT – as not as the best-paid, but the most socially useful.


One way of assessing the true impact of homeworking is to look at who is able to do it.  It doesn’t take long before evidence emerges to indicate the potential of the Corona crisis to reinforce – rather than to eliminate – existing inequalities.  There’s the question of who is excluded from the capacity to work from home: keyworkers who keep our energy and transport and environmental services running, or who provide personal services and health and social care, that cannot be performed remotely.  It’s telling, that as I blogged previously, the childcare workforce was initially omitted from the UK’s list of keyworkers, a situation which was rapidly rectified, as childcare is needed for other keyworkers.  Overwhelmingly, meanwhile, it is better-paid, office-based professionals who are able to work from home in the face of Covid-19.


While energy, transport and delivery workers are often men, in the care and retail sectors, where many other keyworkers are found, the workforce is often female-dominated. According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of the global health workforce is female, and in the NHS, this rises to 77%, underlining women’s crucial role in fighting Corona virus. School teachers are 70% female – rising to over 80% in primary schools – and are spearheading provision for keyworkers’ children, and the online education for most pupils, which can be provided from home. Care workers, who meet the needs of the elderly and vulnerable in their own homes, have emerged as another vital sector, whose efforts have been sadly undervalued up to now.  Many care workers (mostly women) are still ensuring the welfare of others throughout the pandemic.


Large numbers of workers are now ‘furloughed’ meaning that 80% of their income is supported through the government’s job retention scheme. These people can’t continue to do any work, but are protected from being laid off. Commentary has rightly concentrated on those who fall through the gaps in this wage subsidy package (in short, the self-employed, those in new jobs and people on gig economy/zero hours contracts).  But there are also gender issues in the way furlough is being implemented.  Organisations like Working Families have reported that women were being furloughed on the grounds that they couldn’t both carry on working and look after their children. Fathers are not always subject to the same assumptions, and continue to work from home.  The government has more recently allowed that people who are not available to work because of caring responsibilities, can be furloughed.  This has been welcomed as a source of help for parents; but it may increase gender pay gap issues.  Mothers may well persist in being more likely to be furloughed, and, as they tend to be lower paid than men, they will be more vulnerable to hardship.  Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that young people and women are disproportionately likely to work in the sectors which have been ordered to shut down – e.g. non-food retail, hospitality, personal services.  And employers are not obliged to furlough workers – some made redundancies before the government’s proposals were clear – and furlough is not a guarantee of subsequent employment once the crisis abates.


The charity Maternity Action points out that pregnant women and new parents can potentially lose out under furlough.  The 80% of pay which employers can recover will be calculated on what the employee was earning on 28th February. For those on maternity leave, that is often below normal salary. Employers likely vary in the extent to which they may be willing or able to maintain pay at the higher level. If either furloughed, or temporarily on sick pay, pregnant women could find their earnings reduced to too low a level to qualify for statutory maternity pay once have their baby, or that their maternity pay is lower than anticipated.  This type of anomaly, and the gender differences in how parents may be treated by employers, mean that the government’s support could go further. There could be better support for pregnant workers, and the job retention scheme could be extended to cover people on reduced hours. If parents were able to reduce their hours with a wage subsidy, it could yield more equitable options. The current system can incentivise one parent to be on furlough, and the other to carry on working from home full-time where possible. This pattern tends to disadvantage women, with implications for future earnings and employability.


An interesting article on the Conversation website notes that the Corona crisis presents  options for the future – some encouraging hope and greater equality; others, fear and increasing inequality. The future of employment could reflect one or the other.  Silicon Valley firms offer up connectivity, global delivery, and virtual meetings. They also accrue stratospheric levels of wealth, and potential for increasing surveillance and data mining. Another power imbalance to think about as you log in to work from home…..




Trains, planes, and…childcare

20 Mar

Bridges, tunnels, roads, rail, airports – don’t you just love infrastructure? All the stuff that keeps us going – our government has wanted to be seen to commit to the grand physical projects that will be a central part of the ‘levelling up’ process, and Boris Johnson has been particularly keen to promote this.  But if there’s one thing the current Coronavirus crisis is showing us, it’s that behind the conventional idea of infrastructure, lies another vital world of support: the childcare and education workforce (predominantly female) that enables health workers, food distributors – and basically all of us with children – to get to work.  And it is schools and nurseries that often fill the gaps experienced by the most vulnerable among us: free meals, a place of safety, for the children with the least support at home.

Imagine childcare workers’ surprise, then, to learn that the business rates holiday provided for key sectors of the labour force, was announced, at first, without including nurseries as among its beneficiaries.  The Early Years Alliance (the largest representative organisation for the pre-school  sector in the UK)  declared itself ‘disappointed and frustrated’ at this omission – which was later reversed by Rishi Sunak.  He announced that there would also be ‘zero business rates for 12 months for all private childcare providers’ in a new statement on 19th March.  Welcoming this rectification, the Early Years Alliance also pointed out that childminders would not benefit from it.  This situation exposes both the diversity of the childcare sector, and a lack of immediate priority on the part of the government.  There is now a scramble to support parents who still have to turn up to work in our extraordinary times – especially those on the frontline of the health service and food supplies. It is not satisfactory for childcare to be an afterthought.  It may be that the initial confusion could have been allayed by greater diversity in the ‘war cabinet’ at the heart of government’s Coronavirus response. As BBC Women’s Hour discussed today, all of the ministers in this group are men, and often men who are sufficiently wealthy to afford in-home help with any childcare needs. With a more representative group at the table, the childcare and early years sector, as used by most parents, may have been better appreciated from the start.

I’ve written before about childcare as a key web of support underlying our more conventional ideas of infrastructure – childcare services support parental employment and are an important factor in enabling parents (especially fathers) to commute longer distances to work.  And I’ve also written about the longstanding underfunding of the early years sector.  The government has pledged to continue funding the 30 hours free childcare available to 2-4 year olds with employed parents, but this money does not cover nurseries’ costs, and without the fees for additional hours coming in from parents, it is hard to see it as a complete solution to the issues presented by temporary shutdown of the sector.  Meanwhile, it was also unclear to begin with, precisely who was defined as a ‘keyworker’ in the government’s definition of occupations entitled to continuing school and early years provision.  This presented a headache for providers trying to work out how to plan remaining open.  There was also uncertainty around who exactly in the childcare workforce was considered a keyworker themselves.   The government has now clarified that childcare workers – including childminders – are considered keyworkers, and therefore part of a vital infrastructure of support.  Tell parents something they didn’t know….


*UPDATE: As I was writing, the government announced a major package of support for the workforce. All employers – including charities who figure widely in childcare provision – will be able to take advantage of this support to retain employees during closure. It will take a little time to get off the ground. However, childminders are usually self-employed and therefore will receive less generous support from government measures*



Back to the future on Select Committees?

28 Feb

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog about the composition of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, asking whether it mattered that there was only one man sitting on it, and noting the lack of experienced MPs in it.  As the members of Select Committees for this parliament have now been  announced  – after a longer than usual delay following the 2019 election – the same questions have come around again.

Once again, the Women and Equalities Committee finds itself including only one man – a newcomer in parliament, the Conservative MP for Darlington, Peter Gibson – and with an abundance of other novices among its membership.  Apart from the Chair, Caroline Nokes, only two members were  elected before 2019.  Arguably, the presence of a lot of new, relatively young MPs – several of them women under 35 – represents a burst of vitality in this policy area. But as I discussed in 2015, there’s potentially an issue if Women and Equalities issues aren’t taken up enthusiastically by senior MPs, most of whom remain older men.

Caroline Nokes is one of only 8 women amongst this session’s Select Committee Chairs.  The small number of women in these influential positions may at first seem surprising, in a parliament with more female MPs than ever; but as I have written before, it is also a reflection of the fact that the Conservatives have won a  large majority in parliament with relatively few female representatives (around a quarter of Tory MPs are women, compared to nearly half of Labour MPs).

Other Select Committees present a mixed picture in terms of gender and representation.  Historically, economic affairs, defence and foreign relations have been male-dominated.  As has often been the case in the past, Health and Social Care, and Education, are among the committees with the highest proportion of women in their membership.  In economics, the current membership of the Treasury Select Committee is unusual in consisting of 8 women and 2 men.  However, the committee for the Department of International Trade – a crucial area as the UK forges new relationships with the EU and other countries – has no female members at all.  The Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees remain true to form, with 3 women sitting between the two of them, while the European Scrutiny Select Committee is three-quarters male.  Away from the economy and Brexit, climate change and the environment are now high priorities, and women make up about a third of members, on each of the Environmental Audit and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committees.

We still have some way to go before female MPs (34% of all MPs) are well-represented across all Select Committees, doing the work of holding government to account.  And there have been some signs that scrutiny is not a priority for this government.  Boris Johnson has previously avoided appearing before the Liaison Committee, and City AM reported that Number 10 was considering going against the convention of having the Chair elected by members of that Committee.  The Liaison Committee is the one with the power to call the Prime Minister to give evidence.  Apparently, there may be moves to anoint a preferred candidate as Chair. Select Committees have rarely been so interesting…




Chairs at the table: women in Select Committee elections

30 Jan

In the midst of coverage of the UK’s MEPs departing from the European parliament, as the scene is set for leaving the EU tomorrow, it would have been easy to overlook some important developments back in Westminster yesterday. MPs voted to elect Chairs of Select Committees in the House of Commons.  Select Committees are a key part of holding governments to account, as they scrutinise departmental business, and the procedures of parliament themselves.  Governments are obliged to respond to Select Committee recommendations, which they make based on reports including evidence from expert witnesses to Committee hearings.


After every General Election (so pretty often lately) Select Committees are reformed, with Chairs divided between the political parties, according to parties’ share of the vote.  As the 2019 election changed the political landscape dramatically, its impact has been felt in the distribution of Chairs between Conservative and Labour.  In the 2017 parliament, the Conservatives held 13 Chairs, and Labour 12, but following Conservative gains under Boris Johnson, this has shifted to 16 committees being overseen by Conservatives, and 10 by Labour MPs.  The SNP have retained their two Chairmanships – Scotland and International Trade, while the Lib Dems lost Science and Technology to the Tories. The Institute for Government has a full summary of who stood for election to the Chair positions here.


However, it is not just the party arithmetic in Select Committees that has changed as a result of the 2019 General Election.  The gender balance has too – and not necessarily in a progressive direction.  Although the election resulted in the highest proportion of women ever elected to parliament (220 out 650 MPs, or 34% of the total) the proportion of women elected in each political party varies radically.  While 48% of Labour MPs are women, three-quarters of Conservatives are men.  In the SNP and Liberal Democrats, male MPs outnumber females by roughly 2:1.  This means that the pool from which Select Committee Chairs are chosen in this parliament, skews male.  Moreover, these posts have become high-status, and a way for experienced backbenchers to carve out a prominent and authoritative position for themselves, outside of becoming a government minister.  I wrote in autumn about the issue of women leaving parliament in relatively high numbers, especially on the Conservative side.  This means that there are more novices among Tory women in parliament than may otherwise have been the case, reducing the numbers of Conservative women likely to stand for Chairmanships considerably.


I have also written before about the tendency for Select Committee Chairs and members to sort themselves on gender lines according to status and perceptions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ political topics.  Foreign Affairs and Defence are historically male-dominated, while Education and Health are more likely to be evenly mixed.  In yesterday’s elections of Chairs, only 15 Committees out of 28 ended up in contention, as incumbents remained unopposed in 11 cases, and 2 Chairs were elected unopposed (Steve Crabb for Wales and Caroline Nokes for Women and Equalities, both Conservative MPs).  Elsewhere, there were two Committees, International Development and Petitions, where only female (Labour) candidates stood, and a further 6 where both male and female MPs were candidates.  In the remaining seven contested Chairs, only male candidates were on offer.  In all, only one Conservative, and one Labour, woman, was elected Chair where they stood against men. Of the 28 Select Committees where Chairs can be elected, only 8 have a woman in the Chairman post (28%).


These results may be an early warning concerning female representation in this parliament.  Boris Johnson was rumoured to have plans to reduce the number of government departments, and therefore the number of corresponding Select Committees.  The (male-dominated) Department for Exiting the EU will go, and the freestanding department of International Development has apparently escaped the axe.  It’s now said that the Prime Minister wants to focus on departmental performance, rather than changing the composition of government departments.  For the moment it is impossible to know exactly what changes the Prime Minister has in mind in advance of his re-shuffle next month; but the chances for women to attain positions of power in parliament can go down as well as up.




Think of a Leader …

21 Jan

It’s Davos time again – for the 50th time, world leaders, CEOs and assorted luminaries will meet in the Swiss Alps to thrash out the world’s problems.  Peak elite, you might say – or as FT journalist Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson neatly put it, there’s a reputation for ‘high altitude pontificating’ …

This year the conference theme is ‘stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world’ – a step away from the unbridled global capitalism, more favoured in previous agendas.  Climate change is top of global concerns, and the World Economic Forum (WEF), the organisation which runs the Davos conference, has been keen to publicise environmentally-conscious aspects of the meeting.  Delegates have been encouraged to travel by train, and if they have to use private jets (the notorious mode of transport for Davos man) they can buy a special fuel onsite which reduces omissions.  There is a day devoted to vegetarian menus and alternative proteins, and attendees can glide across floors featuring carpets made from recycled fishnets.

So just who are these people who gather annually to chew over the world’s problems?  I’ve written before about Davos’s women problem, which means that despite WEF’s work to calculate the Global Gender Gap and to promote women in business, delegates remain overwhelmingly male. WEF has pledged to double the number of women at Davos by 2030, and are working in a range of countries to accelerate measures to reduce the gender gap. This year women make up 24% of attendees – depressingly the highest proportion to date – and a number which WEF defends by pointing out that it is higher than the proportion of women in ministerial positions worldwide (21%), and a lot higher than the  percentage of women in CEO posts in major companies – which currently stands at an abysmal 6% of the Fortune 500 list.  This is an uneasy argument, given that the Davos crowd is skewed towards Europe, where the political balance is often better, and that one third of delegates are drawn from civil society. The appearance of Greta Thunberg and 10 further teenage ‘Changemakers’ will probably not reduce the average age (around 50) of conference-goers much – nor will it address the dearth of older women present, in spite of high-profile speakers such as Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde.

Indeed in a venue for ‘thought leaders’ it’s fitting that an organisation – Women Political Leaders – is launching a report on the ‘Reykjavik Index for Leadership’ which illustrates how open people are to women occupying leadership positions.  They find that in G7 countries (Canada, France, USA, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan) only a minority of people (46%) feel very comfortable with the idea of a woman as head of government, and only 48% feel similarly about women as CEOs of major companies.  The index, which records views on women’s leadership across a range of sectors, is in its second year, and the UK is in a lower overall position this year than last, with men’s perceptions of women in leadership having declined notably. Not an encouraging sign for future gender parity.  The best-performing countries are France and Canada, with Germany and Italy lowest in the G7.  A second group of nations, containing Brazil, Russia, India and China, shows Russia and China lagging far behind the others. The index also looks at whether people are comfortable with male leaders in the childcare sector, and finds that, in the G7, it’s the sector least likely to be seen as equally suited to both men and women.  Scores are particularly low in Japan (where a government minister recently caused a stir by taking paternity leave) and also in China, where perceptions of childcare as a woman’s activity remain particularly strong.


Meanwhile, among the civil society organisations attending Davos, Oxfam has launched its annual report on inequality, timed to be part of the conference debates.  This year they have looked at global inequality in terms of gender and the share of unpaid labour.  They find that the 22 richest men in the world have greater wealth then all the women in Africa taken together.  This statistic is underpinned by the fact that women do three-quarters of all unpaid care work across the world.  These inequalities between the sexes will only be exacerbated by climate change (making chores like fetching water more arduous) and ageing populations (resulting in women spending more time on elder care).  To make a more gender-equal society, therefore, the perceptions revealed in the Reykjavik Index, will need to shift towards acceptance of men in caring roles, alongside women in leadership. Perhaps the most pertinent question at Davos should be ‘Where’s the creche?’ ….




Phone sects ….

15 Dec

One issue with holding elections near Christmas, is that any given date in December could clash with other events in people’s calendars.  In my case, my other half was off on the long-scheduled Christmas Away-Day overnighter for his work (there’s nothing like Inclusivity …) –  and so I spent the long-haul early hours watching events unfold solo.  But, in fact, I was not alone: I had a long-running text conversation with a friend as the results rolled in.  This is what we learned about British politics as a performance in predictive text:


You are typing  Predictive text says
Jo Swinson No Swindon –  (now twinned with Slough of despond, no doubt…)



Virus …


Peston Person – (of Interest to MSM critics?)


Spaffing Sporting –  (Eton for all!)


Jezza Mezzanine Jazz  – (could have done with more brass bands…)


As the night went on, everything was getting pretty surreal, so mention of the well-worn slogan, ‘Oven ready’, led to the observation that it was both overdone and half-baked: welcome to Schrödinger’s cake.  Happy eating everyone ….





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